ST. LOUIS, MO (BP) – Racial reconciliation rests at the doorsteps of the church and can only be achieved through the Gospel in action, a diverse panel of Baptist pastors said during a trailblazing discussion today (June 14) on the opening morning of the 2016 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis. Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd convened the panel at 10:52 a.m., historically including National Baptist Convention USA President Jerry Young. The two have collaborated for months to put talk into action and actually achieve racial reconciliation in a racially troubled America.
"Being together here at this significant moment in America where racial disunity is occurring, and few are speaking into this discussion, it is our responsibility as the church of Jesus Christ to resound the power of the Gospel and the unconditional love of Christ for all people into this conversation," Floyd said in introducing the nine-member panel including African American, Hispanic, Anglo, American Indian and Asian pastors of varying ages. "It is our responsibility to have this historic conversation today for our present and for our future," Floyd said of the panel, titled "A National Conversation on Racism in America." He called Young, a chief speaker at the event, a "dear friend."
The conversation has to become a lifestyle, Floyd said. Days before the first anniversary of the June 17, 2015, racially motivated massacre of a pastor and eight church members at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the panel also featured in a key speaking role Marshall Blalock, pastor of Charleston's First Baptist Church. All members of the panel expressed a unity of vision and purpose, describing the church as the Light and Salt of the earth, and the only cure on this side of heaven for racism.
As Young put it, "Somebody needs to pass the Salt and turn on the Light." The pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., said racism is a sin problem that can only be solved by the people God has put in place to offer the healing salvation of the Gospel. "The problem in America is a problem with the church being what God called it to be," Young said. "The problem is contaminated salt, concealed light, whereby we do not express the love of Christ nor extend His light." Blalock referenced the "grief and grace" Charleston experienced after 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered worshippers after they welcomed him into a Bible study. That experience, Blalock said, helped white Americans understand the true pain of racism.
"For so many years, white people have not really been able to capture and understand the true pain, the true hurt of racism, at least not experientially," Blalock said. "But racially motivated murder hurt all of us. The white community for the first time, in some ways, would experience the depth of the pain; for the first time, beginning to understand, it was our church that was attacked, our people, our brothers and sisters, our neighbor. Our city was made one by grief."
The church needs to ask itself whether it is intentionally practicing segregation, Blalock said, encouraging those present to search their hearts. "Only the Gospel can change hearts. Only the Gospel can eliminate racism," Blalock said. "Sadly, if we allow our own hearts to fall in that trap of racism it takes away from the Good News. As Dr. Young said, it covers and conceals the Light." Blalock realized years ago that he himself had a "segregated" heart, he said, when a black pastor and friend took him through an African American neighborhood and introduced him to individuals he had never taken the time to notice.
"That day my friend walked me through a neighborhood where we stopped and shook hands and visited with people, and for the first time I realized it was me. My own heart was segregated," he told the thousands gathered in the convention hall. "I had no intention of living that way, just like none of you have any animus toward black people. But yet, it's subtle, and I allowed it to sneak into my soul."
To the remaining eight panelists, Floyd posed questions germane to their individual ministries and circumstances. Kenny Petty, senior pastor of The Gate Church in St. Louis, spoke from the vantage point of the racial turmoil that erupted nearly two years ago in Ferguson upon the killing of Michael Brown.
"What was happening then and what was present then was an infection, a historical, a societal infection that was exposed by an incident, like the incident in Charleston, the incident in Florida the killing of Trayvon," Petty said. While healing has occurred, much more is needed, he said. "The infection just didn't stop at the doorstep of the culture, but that infection was also in the church and needed to be exposed," he said. "It's a good thing that we're having sessions like this." H.B. Charles, pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., said racism is rooted in sin. The church is asleep as Jonah was asleep as a storm raged in the sea, Charles said, and "the Lord is trying to wake the church up."
David Um, senior pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., and chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the smartest people in the world have invented no cure for racism. "The students I encounter at these elite and intellectual institutions are most certainly not racist. Just ask them. They are the enlightened ones," he said with sarcasm. "They have evolved beyond racial divisions ... or so they assume." But they are "completely blind to their personal biases and bigotries." Um concluded, "You cannot educate away racism because you cannot educate away sin. Sin is the problem. Racism is just another sin."
Former SBC President Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, also served on the panel. Other panelists were Timmy Chavis, pastor of Bear Swamp Baptist Church, Pembroke, N.C.; Joe Costephens, pastor of First Baptist Church, Ferguson, Mo.; D.A. Horton, pastor of Reach Fellowship, Los Angeles, and Gregg Matte, pastor of First Baptist Church, Houston.
Floyd described the SBC as the most multi-ethnic and multi-lingual denomination in America, with 10,709 of the 51,441 churches and mission churches holding non-Anglo majority memberships. Of almost 1,000 churches planted in America two years ago, 58 percent were non-Anglo, Floyd said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.